She recalled the preparations for her last large ball.

*   *   *

The late Mr. Bingley, embarrassed by his position in life, worked hard so that his children would not. He succeeded in improving his situation at the cost of his relationship with those for whom he sacrificed his health. His wife, accepting his goals but resentful of his attentions to business, had pined so much during his frequent absences that a relatively mild influenza finally took her to her reward. Unprepared to raise his children himself, he sent them to the finest schools in the land where they were taught many things. Some of those lessons were useful, and some were not, but love of a parent was not among either. Any interaction Mr. Bingley did have with his progeny in his last years—before overwork drove him to his grave—consisted of exhorting them to embrace their hard-won gentility. There was nothing as wonderful as being among the highest members of the London ton, he told them repeatedly.

However, he taught his children ill. Old Bingley saw only the outward appearances of respectability; he had no appreciation for the hard work and duty in which a truly responsible gentleman must engage. He left a tainted legacy.

Charles Bingley, his heir, was fortunate, for among the first he met at school was a remarkable older student from Derbyshire. Fitzwilliam Darcy was attracted to the open goodness of his new, young schoolmate, and they soon became fast friends.

Louisa and Caroline were not as lucky. Quickly falling into the society of the most superior of their fellow students, they learned all that was correct and fashionable but none that was kind. They perfected the art of the cutting remark and snide aside and developed a taste for gossip. At least Caroline had taken her studies seriously. While never a great reader, she found a natural affinity for mathematics and music. Caroline took pride in this, for the mistress of a great estate must both manage and entertain.

Acquiring a great estate was the Bingley sisters’ lifetime goal. The only way to bury their roots in trade forever was to marry into a family of some consequence. Louisa was able to attract the attentions of Mr. Geoffrey Hurst, a man of small estate and less sense. Caroline looked higher. If she needed a husband of respectability, who better to fill that requirement than her brother’s friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy? He had everything she had been taught to look for in a match: estate, fortune, fashionable manners, good taste, and eligibility. That he was handsome was very agreeable. That love might enter into the equation never crossed Caroline’s mind.

For almost three years, Caroline labored to attach herself to Mr. Darcy and his estate of Pemberley. All would end in failure on a summer’s night at Pemberley when Mr. Darcy responded to her ill-judged attack on Elizabeth Bennet with the declaration that, “…it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance.” In her room that evening, Caroline wept in rage and frustration, her dreams shattered. She had been denied her rightful place by a mere country girl, a chit with no family or fortune to recommend her. Eliza was not even as pretty as her sister Jane, who had bewitched Charles. The unfairness of it all nearly consumed Caroline. It only grew worse a few months later when Charles married Jane, and Darcy married Elizabeth.

Caroline had no choice but to act with perfect civility if she wished to retain any connection with the Darcy family. If she could not attain Pemberley, then she had to acquire another estate. The Darcy connection was vital to that goal. Still, in her heart, Caroline cursed the upstart who had crushed her dreams. Her only satisfaction was her belief that the ton would see through Eliza Bennet as quickly as she had, and the dark reaches of her heart gloried in the anticipation of the chit’s mortification.

The opportunity for Caroline’s revenge took place on an evening a few months later at Almack’s. The occasion nominally was Georgiana Darcy’s debut; however, what caught society’s interest was Mrs. Darcy’s presentation to the first circles. As Jane was to share in the honors, Caroline was invited to attend.

Riding to Almack’s that night in the Hursts’ carriage wearing a gorgeous red dress, Caroline was in fine spirits sitting beside Miss Mary Bennet. That was a very strange circumstance. Caroline had developed a friendship through music with Eliza’s plain, moralistic sister. Under her guidance, Mary had taken to spending more attention on her wardrobe. The girl now looked to be rather pretty. Caroline felt certain that Mary, in a beautiful gown Caroline had chosen, would embarrass no one. She looked forward to the response the ton would have to the new Mrs. Darcy.

Her brother and Jane arrived at the same time she did, and they shared an affectionate greeting. Caroline could not help but notice the glow Jane showed. The cause was no mystery; Jane had confided that she was with child just before they left Netherfield. Caroline was oddly pleased at this news. She supposed it was just happiness for her brother. She did not know whether she would enjoy being an aunt.

Caroline’s first indication that the evening would not go as planned occurred when the Darcy party was introduced. Every eye turned to them, and the assembly was not disappointed. Georgiana was lovely, and Miss Kitty Bennet, who had become a companion of sorts to Darcy’s sister, was shown to best advantage. All was as Caroline expected. However, Elizabeth Darcy was stunning. Never had Caroline seen anyone, much less Eliza, take attention from Jane Bingley, but there was no doubt about it: Mrs. Darcy was a goddess, and her debut at Almack’s was a rousing success.

As Caroline endeavored to temper her disappointment at the punch table, she became aware of conversation buzzing around her. She could not put her finger on it until she—accidentally—overheard her friends and acquaintances among the ton, including her best friend from school, Annabella Adams, discussing her failure to secure Mr. Darcy. Caroline realized with horror that the ton was looking for its next victim, and she was their target! She turned almost as red as the dress she wore as she heard their cruel jests. She had no idea she had been so obvious.

As Caroline made her way back to her party, some of her so-called friends confronted her, attacking her with perfect civility; she knew exactly what they were doing, for she was a mistress of the art. Stunned, Caroline deflected as much of the abuse as possible before seeking the sanctuary of the library. Holding back tears, she nearly collided with a gentleman standing nearby.

Once in the library, she collapsed upon the sofa and let free her emotions. For years, she had tried so hard. She craved acceptance by the ton. To hide from her roots in trade, she had acted as her friends had taught her—with superior carriage, superior dress, and superior opinions. Now she saw it was all fantasy. The world she had built around her was made of smoke. She had no friends, and everything she was taught to believe to be true had turned out to assure her of nothing but pain.

She wept for loneliness and for lost opportunities. She shed tears over fears of being adrift forever between the shop and society, never fitting in with either. She was in agony, for she was certain she would never win a gentleman’s admiration.

It was there she was found by Louisa and Mary, and it was into Mary’s arms she cried her heart out.

That night, Caroline Bingley was reborn.

*   *   *

In the glass, Caroline saw Jane go to the door and ask for a maid. “Please look in the nursery and ask of Miss Susan,” she requested.

“The child is fine, Jane,” Caroline remarked as Jane closed the door. “You must not worry. If your servants do not know their business, perhaps you should send them away.”

“Oh, our people are quite competent. I suppose I am a little silly, but I cannot help but think of Susan.” Jane smiled. “When you have your children, Caroline, you will understand.” Jane’s beautiful face paled as she realized her faux pas. “Louisa! How thoughtless of me!”

Caroline saw that Louisa hid her hurt well. “Never you mind, Jane. You are quite right. Caroline will sing a different tune when it is her turn.”

Caroline said nothing as she watched Jane continue to apologize to Louisa. Poor Louisa—married all these years and no children to show for it! Caroline hoped the fault lay with her brother-in-law. If Louisa were barren, Caroline considered, might she be affected as well? Caroline did not think much about having children, but she knew that society would condemn any failure of producing an heir. She did not bring much more to the marriage to Sir John than her dowry, and while it was sizable, it did little to offset her want of suitable relations. If she were barren—Caroline could no longer bear to think upon it.

“You must come for Easter,” Jane told Louisa. “Susan would be desolate without her Aunt Hurst in attendance.”

“Susan is but a babe. She hardly knows me, I am sure.”

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